Digital upskilling in legal: More than just new technology

Topics: Big Data, Data Analytics, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Legal Technologists, Legaltech, Practice Innovations, Process Management, Technology

digital upskilling

How many law firms have digital upskilling programs for their lawyers and staff members? Based on what I hear and read, very few, if any.

Amazon, for example, recently announced a commitment of more than $700 million to its “Upskilling 2025” program, an internal training initiative designed to promote customer satisfaction and worker advancement. Another example is PwC, which has a digital upskilling program to develop its in-house talent pool called “New world. New skills.” In 2019, PwC announced that it would invest $3 billion into job training for its 275,000 employees around the world, enhancing its workforce and client service delivery to better address emerging digital needs.

The goals of these and similar initiatives is to help ensure that employees have the skills in the digital arena to be successful, to position these organizations as preferred employers, and to provide customer and client service excellence.

Most law firms (even the largest firms) have yet to embrace the digital upskilling concept. Law firms don’t need programs with investments the size and cost like Amazon and PwC are making; they can be done with relatively modest investments. If done properly, law firms can position their attorneys and others to not only better themselves but to also enable them to provide better client service and thus improve profitability.

Another benefit would be to give attorneys the knowledge to better understand how their clients work as well as gain insight into their clients’ industries and businesses. Also, there are opportunities to help clients deal with the legal aspects of addressing digital challenges as well. If PwC sees the benefit of making the investment, then law firms should also be able to see the benefit.

Investing in digital learning

In the law firm arena, we see some firms making large investments in knowledge management-related resources (such as software, processes, and hardware), but many firms do not have a similar focus to ensure that the attorneys and others in the firm have the skills and knowledge to help identify what resources the firm should have. Nor are firms developing these resources, once identified, and then taking the lead in making these resources work best for firms and their clients.

Adoption rates for many of the systems put in front of attorneys are lower than they should be, and they have a lower return on investment than should be expected. Recently, I have read the following: “While over half of lawyers expect to see transformational change in their firms from technology like AI, big data, and analytics, fewer than one-quarter say they understand them.”

It’s an interesting point, but I believe that it’s much less than one-quarter of lawyers that really understand AI, big data, analytics or the digital world in general, and few firms are investing in those lawyers’ education. Only 19% of in-house legal teams are well-prepared to support enterprise digital transformation, according to research from Gartner, and I believe that the lack of digital readiness is even lower among law firms.

I have spoken to enough attorneys to believe that they do not understand or embrace what they see; and, if the systems are required — such as a document management system (DMS) — these attorneys will use a minimum of the capabilities. Also, we are all aware of big splash expected from the latest legal technology that died down as soon as attorneys were expected to use it.

Based on my discussions with attorneys, the problem was relatively simple: The attorneys did not understand the tools they were given largely because their firms have not invested in their digital knowledge.

While they are taught the keystrokes to save and search in the DMS, they do not adequately understand concepts such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and digital media and what those advances could mean to them and their practice. Digital upskilling means more than teaching attorneys and others in a firm how to use MS Word or the firm’s DMS. Unfortunately, most law firms assume that this is what it means, which is a short-sighted view of digital education. The same is true for among general counsels and the in-house lawyers within the corporate law department.

According to a survey published in 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Institute, when law firms evaluate new investments in technology or innovation, 72% of participants said that the primary driver of that decision is “optimizing attorney performance.” Thirteen percent said the primary driver is “identifying ancillary revenue streams”; and only 7% identified “automating the delivery of legal services.” To me this suggests that the broader view of technology and the digital world as well as the benefits may not be adequately understood by firms.

Talent Officers and HR functions should be taking the lead to implement these programs. Training vendors in the legal arena can be another strong resource, but they need to go beyond the traditional view of technology education. These programs are not designed to make participants technology experts or coders (although they can, in some cases), but rather educate participants in the concepts that are evolving and driving changes in society, such as AI and data analytics. In this way, the digitally trained lawyer and their clients can participate in and benefit from these inevitable technology changes.

Again, law firms do not need to make investments on the scale of Amazon or PwC. Law firms, even smaller firms, can make more modest investments tailored to their practices and the industries that they serve.

Launching a successful program

What makes a digital upskilling program successful? As noted in a PwC report on their digital upskilling program: “This is a complex challenge.” Elements of a successful digital upskilling program should include the following:

    1. Build a learning culture.
    2. Develop goals and set priorities for your firm, asking what this means to the firm, its attorneys, clients, and other stakeholders.
    3. Assess where your firm, your attorneys, and others in the firm are regarding technology.
    4. Involve clients; ask what they would like to see, how they can benefit from service delivery improvements, and how their team can learn and grow.
    5. Market the benefits internally and externally.
    6. Ensure that programs are continuous, and not one-off efforts.
    7. Make digital training sessions bite-sized; long sessions away from billable hours will lead to low participation.
    8. Connect participants with mentors.
    9. Encourage self-learning.
    10. Use real-life situations as learning tools.

Investing in a digital upskilling program can pay substantial dividends in client service, firm growth, client retention, business development, and importantly, lawyer and staff development and retention. If Amazon and PwC find value in a digital upskilling program, I believe that law firms can and should do the same.